Reconciliation is an abstraction that takes some wrestling with to begin to define and comprehend, let alone achieve. As I write this welcome for Reconciliation, our second online issue, I am grappling with the concept in very personal terms. Struggling would be a more apt description.
Although I have been actively working with, through, and in the midst of the nexus of various axes of power and domination including race, class, gender, and geography since my college days in the late 1980s, which is to say, for more than half of my life, I was unprepared for the breakthrough in my dissertation research that came in the wee hours this morning. No amount of scholarly, creative, or personal engagement with issues of social justice had prepared me to discover that my family owned slaves.
You might ask, as Nonfiction Managing Editor Whitney Johnson has, what makes this discovery so difficult? Is it that slaveholding itself is deplorable? Is it that what I've been told about my family doesn't match up with the new picture? In short, why can't I just move on and say, Well, that wasn't me? The answer lies somewhere in the gray area between the answers to these questions.
For starters, no one in my family has ever even hinted at the possibility that our penchant for industry included the trafficking, breeding, and holding of human beings for our own gain. I had heard whispers that my forebears had traveled from France to England to lobby Queen Elizabeth I on matters of religious freedom. I had been told that the family ultimately left France in 1687 after Louis XIV repealed the Edict of Nantes thereby depriving French Protestants of religious and civil liberties, that we immigrated to the New World in search of religious freedom. I had heard about public service, including distinguished careers in the Revolutionary War. I had been told about how we lost everything in the Great Depression, that we knew poverty and hardship, that we were hard-working and God-fearing. Above all, I had been schooled to believe that we were honorable.
This facade of respectability cracked significantly when I discovered the 1860 census for Madison County, Georgia, a county that sits on the northern border of Clarke County - the site of my current home and of The University of Georgia. The 1860 census contains a list of all the slaves owned in the county the year before the Civil War began, and my family names are sprinkled liberally throughout the roster, from both the paternal and maternal lines. We owned about five percent of the county's nearly two thousand slaves, a considerable holding. Nearly one hundred men, women, and children. This crack leads me to dig into my feelings about the institution of slaveholding in new and personal ways. An institution I have always condemned as deplorable, I must now condemn it from the vantage point of one directly implicated by heritage.
When I began my research, I had no idea what I was looking for. All I knew was that I was searching for something that could account for, or explain, the silences, secrets, and shame that shifts around my family and the communities among which I was raised. I've been driven to flesh out a more nuanced story that could account for the mysteries I intuited and the dead-end answers I received in response to seemingly simple questions about who we are. I am challenged now, however, to reconcile the old narrative of my life with the new narrative of a family that owned slaves. I find that I cannot fully fathom the depth of the implications of this new narrative, the pain it brings and contains, and the way it topples binaries with abandon.
We tend to think about oppression in terms of binary oppositions: right/wrong, good/bad, oppressed/oppressor. I have long believed that making these sorts of easy reductions ultimately does us a disservice - that to understand oppression, we have to examine all parts of the phenomenon as an integrated system. I am nonetheless balking at making the move to integrate the new-found pieces of myself with my tried and true sense of self. Quite simply, I've fallen prey to the binaries I abhor, and I'm made ever so uncomfortable by the need to locate myself in the gray areas between right and wrong, good and bad. My discovery requires me to wrestle with incompatible realities and allow them to coexist: honorable and slave-holding, God-fearing and slave-holding, slave- holding and everything I hold dear about my identity.
Such a challenge is invaluable, and it presents me with the opportunity to explore, in very personal ways, the perspective of "the evil other." This process teaches me more about what it is to be human and how humans can create oppressive systems. I don't like it that I am forced to assume this mantle, but in doing so, I can no longer claim self- righteousness. Instead, I must humbly try to understand an aggregate of details that defy binary opposition. I simply can't claim that wasn't me. Rather, I have to integrate this new part of me.
My personal struggle with the abstraction, "reconciliation," hints at the complexity that we have tried to bring you with this issue of Mandala Journal. In the poems, art, essays, fiction, and conversations that it contains, you will not find naive dismissals and tidy bows. You will find struggle. You will find words and work that dig into the quagmire bravely. You will find efforts to shine light on the challenging and the difficult aspects, experiences, and histories of our species. In this struggle, you will also find the grounds for hope. For, shining light on complexity creates a space for hope to emerge from the dark corners, closed doors, and dirty secrets that tend to discourage hope, at best, and altogether annihilate it, at worst. We do not mean to make reconciliation easy for you. Rather, we intend to create the ground for hope from the terrain of struggle that reconciliation requires.
Before I close, I would like to recognize the remarkable hope that I find - and that it is my sincere wish you find - in the fact of the predominantly undergraduate staff who volunteered to come together to produce this journal in their "spare" time. I have been blessed and honored by the opportunity to work with such remarkable human beings. The Mandala Journal staff has taught me much about what hardworking and honorable can mean, and I am warmed to my core by their collective and individual efforts during my two years at the helm. As I bid them and the journal farewell to move on to my next project, I welcome you to dive into the fruit of our efforts and to join the conversation. I wish that, like me, you will find much light, much hope, both here and in your own struggle.
Ashley David is a doctoral student in English. Poems, essays, and multimedia have appeared in Alimentum, Center, The Greensboro Review, Hanging Loose, The Michigan Quarterly Review, Mid-American Review, The Offending Adam, The Southern Review, Toad, Verse, and Women's Studies Quarterly. Op-ed features on education, the environment, and social justice have appeared in The Flagpole, and scholarship on Toni Cade Bambara is forthcoming in several anthologies. She is the blog editor for the Michigan Quarterly Review.